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The first time I noticed Tablespoon was when my brother and I were walking back to his car after a nice dinner at Pesce, right down the street. "This place used to be called Spoon," Jeff said, as we peered through the window, "and I think it was kinda comfort food." Now it looked clean and elegant, like a chic wine bar -- I could see slabs of polished wood affixed to one wall, with a row of linened tables below, opposite a long bar with cushy-looking caramel-colored leather bar stools (more chairs than stools, actually). "There's a place called Fork," he continued, "down the Peninsula" -- implying, perhaps, that I could combine the two in a piece. Too cute, too conceptual, I thought, as we agreed that it would be hard to conceive of a restaurant called Knife.
Tablespoon came to mind as a nice spot to have a cozy, intimate dinner when Tom called and suggested we get together with Michelle. I should know by now that an evening with Tom is an adventure, and rather a fluid one: We were to meet that night at a cocktail party, and by the time I showed up, Vera had been invited to join us for supper. It transpired that a mutual friend, Ed, was shooting a commercial nearby. Cell phones were employed; Ed arrived, almost magically, with a lovely blonde; and soon I was calling Tablespoon to ask if we could increase our reservation to six.
Happily, we could, and when we got there we had to wait only a few minutes, some of our group smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk, some clinging close to the bar and in the tiny entrance while our table was being set. During which time Tom ran into a couple he knew on their way out. The word was that the food was very good, but that it took an awfully long time to arrive.
San Francisco, CA 94109
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Macaroni and cheese $9
Pork tenderloin $17
Marinated tri-tip $19
Brussels sprouts with bacon $4
Blood orange crème brûlée $7
Chocolate torte $7
Open for dinner Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight; open Sunday for brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner from 6 to 10 p.m. (bar menu available 3 to 6 p.m.). Closed Tuesday
Noise level: moderate to high
Six is one or two more than I like to have for a working meal, but everybody was gracious about ordering different things and being sure to offer me tastes. It wasn't a particularly foodie crowd: Dinner, for them, was more about conversation than an overwhelming gastronomic experience. And the food didn't prove especially distracting. The starters were not, I thought, particularly brilliant -- the generous salad of young field greens was drenched in a too-sweet vinaigrette, the ricotta and herb ravioli was pleasant but innocuous, as was the pizza margharita. Michelle was well pleased with her cream of sweet potato soup, dotted with puréed basil and a few mussels. I had plunged for the pricey ($20, about twice what the other salads, pizzas, pastas, and appetizers were going for) seared foie gras, a nice-sized but slightly disappointing piece of the liver. Like the curate's soft-boiled egg in the famous Punch cartoon, "Parts of it were excellent!" In other words, there were stringy bits marring the carefully seared lushness, and I found its accouterments fussy (again with the overdressed and oversweet).
Things got markedly better with the main courses. The house style seemed to be soft morsels of meat or fish perched on top of interesting vegetables (also mostly soft), with a benediction of flavorful jus poured over all from a small pitcher at table -- a fancy and warming touch. Still comfort food, but haute. My favorite dish, and one I would gladly eat again, was the sliced oven-roasted pork tenderloin on a bed of rarely seen salsify (also called oyster plant, for its supposed oysterlike flavor), with translucent cippolini onions and bright green leaves of Brussels sprouts. Two of us had the night's steak preparation, sliced atop mashed potatoes and spinach, and the meat had a good beefy tang. I was perplexed by my pasta dish, drowned in broth and topped with greens and shreds of lamb shank that had been braised into submission. Our server had called it a signature dish; I found the meat way overcooked, the flavor elusive. The slender Vera, an eccentric orderer, seemed to be having the best meal: She'd been delighted with her first course, a pearly slab of good, firm house-cured salmon gravlax served with hearts of romaine and a caper-and-chopped-egg mimosa, and she loved her main course, a bowl of creamy mashed potatoes.
Suddenly I noticed that we'd been joined by Michelle's boyfriend, David, who'd snugged himself next to Ed on the banquette and was already tucking into a salad, followed, I was pleased to see, by the pork. We'd thrown the busy place (completely full on a Thursday night) two curves -- the increased reservation, the unexpected arrival -- and the staff had dealt with them calmly.
I hadn't noticed any long lag time between courses, but it turned out there was no time for dessert -- Tom was anxious to shepherd the group to a jazz club in North Beach. I begged off, feeling slightly worn.
I'd been happily anticipating my dinner with Ruby and Mary, whom I hadn't seen since their wedding last September in Toronto, until I was led to our table. It looked like a joke: a deuce that was already pretty small for two now set for three, with the third chair optimistically wedged in between the long side of the table and a short wooden wall that separated us from the service area. I remonstrated with the maitre d', to no avail, pointing out that we had passed two parties of three sitting comfortably at tables for four. "They were seated earlier," he said (Yes? So?), and added some gobbledygook about keeping the menu prices low and value for money, which didn't seem exactly responsive to my concerns. "I could probably seat you at a bigger table in about half an hour," he offered, which I declined. This time the place had thrown me a curve, and I wasn't calm about it at all.